Helping authors publish

Category: Copyright, legal, etc.

Can I use song lyrics in my book?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I have a long-standing interest in copyright, and I’ve read a lot of opinions from lawyers on the subject. But I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

The real answer to the question asked in the title of this article is, “It depends.” If the song lyrics are covered by copyright, then no, you can’t use them unless you get permission.

You could ask for permission, of course. You may have to pay a fee, and if the copyright holder is a large corporation, the cost may be prohibitive. On the other hand, if the song is by an independent artist, their price might be more affordable.

What about fair use?

It’s a common claim on the internet that small parts of copyrighted works can be used freely, under the auspices of “fair use”. This is partially true, but it’s more complex than such a simple statement suggests.

For one thing, many legal jurisdictions have no concept of fair use. Some, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, have the concept of fair dealing rather than fair use. Fair dealing is less flexible and more restrictive than fair use, and in some jurisdictions it is limited to non-commercial uses.

But even in the United States, where the doctrine of fair use is well established, it probably won’t help you. Fair use applies if the copyrighted work is being quoted for a limited use, such as commentary, criticism, education, or parody.

A photograph of a judge's gavel, with open books in the background

Quoting a song lyric for any of those purposes might qualify as fair use. Having your character sing lines from their favourite song, or using it to set a particular tone, almost certainly isn’t fair use.

If you decide that your usage is fair use, it’s important to note that it does not mean that you have nothing to fear. It simply gives you an argument that you can use in your defence if you get sued. Even a successful defence could be expensive.

What to do instead

One option is to rewrite the relevant section so that it does not need song lyrics, possibly referencing the song without actually quoting it. But if you really want lyrics, there are ways to do so legally and ethically.

You could make up your own lyrics. This has the advantage that they can say exactly what you need to serve your story. There’s no need to write an entire song, unless you need the whole thing.

Or, you could look for songs that have been released under a Creative Commons licence. In this case, the owner retains their copyright, but allows reuse under certain terms. If you’re using Creative Commons licenced material, make sure you read the licence and understand what is required. There are several different licences, all with different requirements.

Finally, if the song lyrics are not covered by copyright, you can use them however you wish. This mostly applies to songs old enough that the copyright term has expired, but occasionally copyright owners will choose to relinquish their rights. This is rare, but it does happen — Tom Lehrer being a notable example.


If you came to this article hoping to find out how to use a specific song’s lyrics in your book, you may be disappointed. But there are legal ways to use song lyrics in your book. Hopefully one of the methods outlined above will work for you.

To DRM or not to DRM?

One of the questions we ask our authors is whether or not they want to enable DRM for their ebooks. Our recommendation is always not to enable it, but as with everything else, it’s the author’s book and so the final decision is theirs. This article explains what DRM is, why you might want it, and why we always recommend against using it.

What is DRM?

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which is technology that tries to prevent unauthorised copying of electronic files. There are DRM technologies available for various types of electronic files, but this article is only concerned with ebooks.

In theory, an ebook with DRM can only be viewed on an authorised device. In other words, if you buy a Kindle ebook from Amazon, you can read that ebook on any Kindle app or device that is registered to your Amazon account. If you buy an ebook from Kobo, you can read it on any Kobo app or device registered to your Kobo account. There’s no point uploading your file to a piracy site, since no-one else will be able to read it.

Does it stop piracy?

If it worked as intended, DRM would stop piracy. In practice, for anyone who knows how, removing DRM from ebooks is quick and easy. Most readers don’t know how, of course, but anyone wanting to pirate ebooks can find it out from a quick internet search.

This means that pirates know how to get around the restrictions. Thus, the pirates aren’t affected, and piracy isn’t prevented.

What does it mean for readers?

Most of the time, nothing. But if a reader has been reading books on one platform and decides to move to another, they won’t be able to take any DRM’d books to their new ereader. While it’s possible to strip the DRM to do this, the average user is unlikely to know how.

If the vendor decides to stop selling ebooks, the reader will not be able to read their DRM’d books elsewhere. If you’re thinking that’s unlikely, note that Microsoft stopped selling ebooks as recently as 2019. Back in 2013, Kobo removed all self-published books from its catalogue in what turned out to be a temporary purge. In the early days of Kindles back in 2009, Amazon removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles.

So overall, there is no real benefit to enabling DRM, but you might potentially cause problems for readers.

Proving copyright ownership with WIPO Proof

NOTE: The WIPO Proof service will shut down at the end of January 2022. Existing WIPO Proof tokens will continue to function as proof of ownership.

Most authors know that they own the copyright in their work as soon as they write it. There’s no need to register, but it can be useful to have proof. One option is to register the copyright with the US Copyright Office – this is an option even for non-US authors.

Earlier this year, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations (UN), created WIPO Proof as a way to register ownership of a digital file such as an ebook file or PDF.

A WIPO Proof token costs less than registering with the US Copyright Office. A WIPO Proof token currently costs twenty Swiss Francs (about $22), whereas registering with the US Copyright Office costs $45 or $65.

What a WIPO Proof token is and is not

A WIPO Proof token provides proof that you had a digital file when you created the token. It does not prove that you created the file or own the copyright. You could think of it as being akin to the old idea of posting a copy of the manuscript to yourself, but with the added legitimacy of being issued by a UN agency. In practical terms, if you need to provide evidence of ownership, being able to prove that you had a copy of the disputed file at some previous date is useful.

Indie authors are most likely to need something like this to prove their copyright to a vendor or distributor such as Amazon or Draft2Digital. I emailed the following companies to ask if they would accept a WIPO Proof token as evidence in a copyright dispute.

Barnes & Noble didn’t respond to my question.

Apple, Google, and KDP said that they couldn’t answer the question. They all said that their legal team would decide on a case by case basis.

Draft2Digital said that their vendors generally require authors to communicate directly with the person claiming copyright infringement, so they wouldn’t get involved.

Ingram Spark, Kobo, OneBookShelf/DriveThruFiction, PublishDrive, StreetLib, and BundleRabbit said that they would take a WIPO Proof token into consideration as evidence, if not outright proof of copyright.

Smashwords were the only company that definitively said that they would not take a WIPO Proof token into consideration.

Generating a WIPO Proof token

To generate a WIPO Proof token, you will need a WIPO account. Go to and click “Create WIPO Account”. They will send you an email with a link to confirm your account.

Log in to your WIPO account at Click Get started.

Screenshot: Selecting a file to create a WIPO Proof token

Select your file and the ownership option that applies. That will probably be “Yes, I am the natural person who owns the file.”

Select the category. For books, use “Creative work (audio, visual, or literary work).”

The next screen shows a summary and the fee. I paid in British pounds rather than Swiss Francs to avoid currency conversion fees.

Once the payment is confirmed, you will go to a “Payment Details” screen showing the payment status as “Paid”. Click Continue.

Screenshot: WIPO Proof token created

It will then take you to a congratulations screen. Clicking the download button will download a zip file containing a PDF receipt and a token file. You can also download the token from your WIPO Proof dashboard.

I strongly suggest keeping the contents of this zip file, along with the file you uploaded, in a separate folder on your computer. If you ever need to verify your proof token, you will need the file you uploaded and the token file.

Final notes

WIPO Proof tokens are tied to specific files because of the way they work. So if you get a token for the PDF print interior, it won’t be valid for the ePub. If you change the file, even slightly, the WIPO Proof token will no longer be valid. Therefore, keep the token and the uploaded file together in a separate folder on your computer.

I suggest using a PDF to generate the token, as they are still more widely supported than ePubs. Any claim will most likely revolve around the content of the book, rather than the specific formatting. The companies that said they would take a WIPO Proof token into consideration all said that they would accept a token generated for a PDF, even if an ePub had been uploaded to their systems.

Disclaimer: None of this is legal advice. I am not a lawyer.

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